Before the season began, no experts I can remember predicted the Cleveland Indians would be where they are this far in the season: atop the AL Central.
The pitching was believed to be suspect, and no one knew how former stars Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner would perform. Couple that with their recent history of finishing out of the running of the division, and there was little reason to think the Indians would be this good when the season began.
Now, many experts are looking like fools. Despite falling off a bit since their torrid start in April and May, the Indians still find themselves in contention nearly three months into the season.
If the Indians are to continue their winning ways, and make it to postseason play, many aspects of the team will need to fall into place. Here is a look at what I believe to be the important keys to their success in the coming months.
Grady Sizemore has been the star of the Indians over the past few years, at least when he's been on the field. A five-tool center fielder, it's arguable he's one of the best in the game when healthy.
Those last two words are the key: when healthy. The past few seasons Sizemore has been anything but. He appeared in only 106 games in 2009, and a mere 33 last season due to injuries. Heck, this season he's already been on the DL for a bruised kneecap.
If the Indians are going to contend, Sizemore needs to stay healthy the rest of the way. His numbers thus far haven't been the greatest, batting a measly .233 with 53 strikeouts in just 163 at-bats, but he does have seven homers, and over half of his 38 hits have been for extra bases.
Manager Manny Acta may want to try and find rest for Sizemore in an attempt to get him 100 percent for the second half, because the talent is there for him to be among the best in the game, his body just isn't allowing it.
Travis Hafner has been one of the biggest reasons Cleveland has become a contender this season.
From 2004-2007, Hafner was one of the most feared hitters in the American League, batting over .300, hitting 30 home runs, and driving in over 100 RBI.
However, from 2008-2010, Hafner's production dropped almost as much as LeBron James' popularity in Cleveland. Riddled by injuries, Hafner hit a total of 34 home runs, and drove in a total of 123 runs. For one season, that's pretty good, but not for three.
Now, it appears Hafner has re-channeled his 2004-2007 form. Despite having gone on the DL due to an oblique injury, he's batting over .340 and has an OPS of .972. His power numbers are down a bit, with only six homers, but he's hitting as well as ever.
Much like Sizemore, it's going to be important for Hafner to stay healthy and continue to rekindle his abilities from five years ago instead of two. If those two bats are healthy and productive, the Indians' lineup will be one to fear in the second half.
Okay, enough about specific players. How about the performance of the starting pitchers thus far?
Behind a bunch of unproved youngsters, the Indians rotation has been surprisingly good for the first three months of the year.
If anyone had told me a rotation consisting of Justin Masterson, Mitch Talbot, Fausto Carmona, Carlos Carrasco, and Josh Tomlin would be statistically average, I would've been amused.
No, they haven't been great, but they're still overachieving considering their overall lack of experience. The only one with more than a few years experience as a starter, Fausto Carmona, has been the one who's been struggling mightily this season (4-9 with an ERA above six).
One hopes Fausto can come out of the funk he's been in this season and be a .500 pitcher. It will be interesting to see how these young arms will react to a pennant race assuming they're still in contention come August.
Easily the most impressive part of the Indians, aside from Asdrubal Cabrera, has been the bullpen performance. They've become one of the best in the league statistically, and from what Indians fans tell me, they're very confident if the team is winning heading into the seventh inning.
The bullpen currently has the second lowest ERA in the AL at 3.03, their WHIP is fourth at 1.27, and their K/BB is fifth at 2.10.
Translation: they don't allow many runners on base, preventing them from blowing leads or close games.
For a pen that consists of relative unknowns Tony Sipp, Vinnie Pestano, Rafael Perez, and Joe Smith, that's very impressive. All four have ERA's lower than 2.03, K/BB above 1.5, and WHIP below 1.25 (Sipp and Pestano's are below 1.00).
Then there's the closer, Chris Perez, a guy who took over the closer's role midway through the last season and has proceeded to convert 40 of 45 save opportunities since his promotion. This year, he's 17 of 18.
It's really hard to ask any more from the bullpen, and honestly, to expect them to keep it up all season is a stretch. That being said, even if the pen takes a slight drop in performance, they'll still be one of the best in the American League, so as long as they don't fall apart, these guys will be heavily relied on to keep leads when the games start mattering more and more.
And here's probably the biggest weakness of the Tribe, and probably a key factor as to why the man pictured here (Jon Nunnally) is no longer the hitting coach: lack of plate discipline.
In the AL, the Indians have the second-worst strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) at 2.34, behind only the LA Angels at 2.40.
Of the everyday starters, only catcher Carlos Santana has almost as many walks, 47, as strikeouts, 51. This means that the Indians are being far too aggressive at the plate and chasing pitches out of the zone.
These guys are in the middle of the pack in almost every other category, so it's not like the offense has become debilitated by their lack of plate discipline. However, if the Tribe hitters were to improve this aspect of their game, the rest of the offense would get better.
They would force opposing pitchers to throw more quality pitches (which means better pitches to hit), get more runners on via walk, and thereby provide more opportunities to score runs, which is kind of the way teams win ball games.
Improving plate discipline would turn this offense from average to good, and give the pitching staff less pressure knowing they'll have more of a cushion on most nights. If I had to choose the most important key to the Indians contention in September, it would be this one.